Eric Cantor has never been closer to wielding the speaker’s gavel, but he may want to keep an eye over his right shoulder.
As speculation heats up about whether Speaker John Boehner will return in 2015, Cantor is in the midst of a kind of shadow job interview with House conservatives, and it isn’t going all that well.
Cantor recently enraged many Republicans by sneaking a Medicare bill through the House by voice vote. Days later, a provision in the bill that expanded Obamacare coverage became public, prompting high-profile scrutiny from the Drudge Report. Making matters worse, Boehner had been out of town for the vote, putting blame for the incident squarely on Cantor’s shoulders.
The Virginia Republican also drew flak for attending a tropical summit organized by a group working to undermine the Tea Party. ForAmerica President Brent Bozell described the move in a phone interview as providing “aid and comfort to an organization devoted to destroying the Tea Party.”
Weeks before that, he partnered with Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) on a flood insurance bill, ignoring the concerns of the House committee chairman who had just donated $1 million to the NRCC and happens to be Cantor’s most formidable would-be rival for the speakership.
The dynamic on the flood insurance battle, in which Cantor overrode House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), could become a pattern. The two are likely to be at odds on a series of upcoming bills like reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank.
There’s also Cantor’s work on immigration: he’s drafting a variation of the “DREAM Act” to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors and pushing a more limited proposal by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) for DREAMers who enlist in the military in the meantime.
Cantor thinks “we should turn our military into an amnesty experimentation program,” conservative radio host Laura Ingraham fumed on a recent show, her voice rising to a near-yell as she excoriating Cantor for having what she described as “the same” view on the issue as President Obama.
In his seventh term in Congress, Cantor, who climbed the House leadership ladder quickly before stalling at the second-ranking position under Boehner, has never faced so much criticism on the right. And it’s happening months before he might be making a bid for the number one spot.
The latter sentiment – that Cantor is ideologically unpredictable, to put it one way – is something that comes up repeatedly in conversations with lawmakers on the right flank of the House Republican conference.
After Republicans took control of the House in 2010, Cantor often feuded with Boehner, fueling an impression that he was the voice of the Tea Party freshman class at the leadership table. That eventually drew calls for unity from the rank-and-file upset about the often staff-driven spats.
In the last two years, Cantor, who has engaged in at least four concerted “rebranding” makeovers of his public image, has veered sharply in the other direction, strongly backing Boehner and moving to the center.
The shift has included moves like bringing a Democratic version of the Violence Against Women Act that most Republicans considered unconstitutional to the House floor, which passed in violation of the Hastert Rule. Cantor was also one of 28 Republicans who voted in February to pass a clean debt ceiling increase.
For House conservatives, who have often criticized Boehner’s leadership, Cantor’s new tack presents a quandary.
Cantor “would only be putting a well-trained and obedient prince on the throne in place of the king,” a senior GOP House aide said.
As furtive groups of lawmakers on the right begin to prepare for the leadership elections at the beginning of the next Congress – what to do about Cantor is an unresolved question.
According to lawmakers participating in the conversations, there are several “clusters” of Republicans working to prepare for a leadership fight. The discussions ramped up when Breitbart News reported that Boehner recently purchased a luxury condo in Marco Island, Florida, one lawmaker said.
Republicans say Hensarling and former Republican Study Committee chairman Jim Jordan are top options as potential Cantor rivals – supposing, of course, that Boehner either leaves of his own accord or is forced out, both of which are still speculative.
One problem is convincing either man to step up to the plate. “You would have to be a serious masochist to want that job,” one former House GOP member said of the speakership.
Other, more outside-the-box challengers are under discussion, including Rep. Dan Webster, a former Florida House Speaker, who is touted as someone that could be an honest broker of the “majority of the majority.”
In the near-term, a fight over the Export-Import bank is a battle that may sharpen the contrast between Cantor and Hensarling.
In 2012, Cantor shepherded reauthorization of the bank through the House, striking a deal with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.
But conservatives are already staking out the issue as a major battle, and Hensarling, whose committee oversees the issue and is working to dismantle the bank, is a big factor.
In a statement to Breitbart News, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said Republicans should let the bank’s charter expire. “This is our opportunity to advance our welfare-reform agenda, which starts by getting rid of corporate welfare,” Ryan said.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has called the Export-Import Bank, and whether the GOP will fight against its reauthorization, as the “Cronyism test” for the Republican Party in a National Review op-ed.
The Hill reported Cantor may be balking on trying to push what has previously been a pet issue of his through the House.
Cantor’s office declined to comment on the record for this article.